If only we could hit “undo” on an oil painting and back up a few steps to restart an area. It happens to every artist. Even Sorolla would scrape down multiple times until he got it right. Scraping down work is frustrating. Aside from the physical disruption of the painting, it can deplete your confidence. It also wastes time and paint. But, it’s inevitable. Sometimes you need to scrape down your work to get it right.
Scraping down paint is usually done on an area of a painting which is dry. During en plein air painting or alla prima (wet on wet), it is more likely that you are wiping away a wet area. Often, artists do a combination of both scraping down and then cleaning up with a mixture of odorless mineral spirits and medium to rework the area. I have been pretty far into a painting and realized the need for a scrape down. Perhaps the number one reason I scrape down or restart is inaccurate drawing. I recently was working on a portrait and noticed the left plane of the face was about a third larger than it needed to be. It required reworking the entire left side, hair and all. I debated letting it go and giving it the proverbial “whatever” but decided it would haunt me if I left it. Poor compositional choices are also reasons that I have scraped down. When painting en plein air, for example, I tend to paint what I see rather than rearrange elements to make a more pleasing composition.
How do you scrape or wipe? It really depends on how wet or dry the paint is. If the paint is too dry, you can use a flat edge razor blade or a palette knife. Sometimes I will use a small piece of sandpaper to sand into the edges of surrounding paint. If the paint is wet, I use a Q-tip or Viva paper towel dipped in Gamsol. I also have a handy rubber tipped tool I purchased from Hobby Lobby.
To avoid the need to wipe down or scrape off, there are a few things you can do. First, do a drawing of your composition. Take a few minutes to get a pleasing design. Stand back often. Set a timer if you are well intentioned but get engrossed in your work. Paint thinly first (lean). Don’t rush to add in details too soon. Keep squinting to see your values. Use comparable sizing early in the painting to get the drawing correct. Compare everything to that first bit of color or the first line you placed on canvas. If you do need to scrape or wipe down, it’s all good. At least you are out there painting!